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NFL causes small drop in WNBA finals ratings but ESPN hails overall growth

Strong regular season numbers a cause for optimism at Disney-owned networks.

21 September 2022 Josh Sim

Getty Images

  • WNBA finals score average audience of 534k, 3% down on 2021
  • 2022 regular season was the most viewed in 16 years
  • Twitter also reports growth in WNBA conversations

Despite the new National Football League (NFL) season hitting domestic broadcast audiences for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) finals, Disney-owned ESPN hailed the “monumental growth” seen overall during the 2022 campaign.

Across the four-game series, which saw the Las Vegas Aces beat the Connecticut Sun, viewership averaged 534,000 across ESPN and ABC. These audience figures represent a three per cent drop from the previous season’s 548,000 per game average.

Despite all being programmed against live NFL, the first three games of the 2022 WNBA finals looked to have put the series on course to hit new heights.

ABC’s broadcast of game one on 11th September was watched by an average of 555,000 viewers and a peak of 872,000 – the most-viewed WNBA finals opening since 2017. Game two averaged 649,000 viewers on ESPN, while game three’s average audience was 579,000. The major hit came with ESPN’s game four broadcast on September 18th, which scored an average audience of 396,000 – the least-viewed WNBA finals game of the past two seasons.

However, it should be noted the series’ final game straddled both afternoon windows for Sunday’s NFL coverage in the US, a major issue for the WNBA and ESPN if they want to grow audiences going forward.

The slight decline in audiences for the finals runs contrary to the overall positive narrative around WNBA ratings during the 2022 season, as the league scored its most viewed campaign in 16 years.

The 2022 WNBA regular season saw a 16 per cent year-over-year (YoY) viewership increase across its domestic broadcast partners, ESPN and CBS. The average of 379,000 viewers per game represented the league’s most-viewed regular season in 14 years.

In terms of highlights, the final regular season game between the Aces and Seattle Storm, broadcast on ABC, averaged 835,000 viewers and peaked at 1.1 million – the most-viewed WNBA game since 2008.

The 23 WNBA playoff games on Disney-owned networks had an average audience of 456,000 viewers, which represents a 22 per cent increase from the 2021 postseason. According to ESPN, it was the most-viewed postseason since 2007.

The league’s All-Star game on 10th July averaged 734,000 viewers, with a peak of 768,000 on ABC – the best viewing figures in seven years for that event.

Ashley O’Connor, ESPN’s senior director, programming and acquisitions, said: “The 2022 WNBA season on Disney Networks was a year of monumental growth – and we feel it is just the beginning.

“ESPN will continue to look for even more ways to elevate and showcase the incredible women of the WNBA. We have had a strong relationship with the league since its inception in 1996 and look forward to collaborating together for many years to come.”

The league’s growth in popularity was also evident on social media. Twitter reported that WNBA-based conversation volume within the US increased by 73 per cent from the previous campaign.

There was also a 92 per cent increase in the number of people tweeting about the WNBA in its home market, while conversation about the league grew 18 per cent YoY among Twitter users outside the US.

The increase in audiences will be welcomed by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who earlier this year announced that the league’s 2023 regular season will expand to 40 games.

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